The multistakeholder model and neoliberalism

Multistakeholderism, says Michael Gurstein, is the counterpart of neoliberalism and is being promoted as the basic governance model of Internet governance, not only by the US government and the corporate sector but also by wide elements of civil society. 

YOU may not have come across the term 'multistakeholderism' (MSism) - and it is quite a mouthful - but you will likely hear a lot of it and very soon. The US government and its corporate and civil society allies have decided that it is to define the governance structure for the Internet (and through it, the preferred structure for global governance overall). 

One of the truly remarkable recent developments in the Internet field from a civil society perspective is the sudden emergence and insertion of the 'multistakeholder model' in Internet governance discussions some 2-3 years ago. The term itself has been around a lot longer and has even been used within the Internet sphere to describe (more or less appropriately) the decision-making processes of various technical bodies (the IETF, the IAB, ICANN).

Associated with this is the new and somewhat startling drive by the US government et al. to transplant the MS model from the quite narrow and technical areas where it has achieved a considerable degree of success, towards becoming the fundamental, and effectively the only, basis on which Internet governance discussions are to go forward. Notably as well, 'multistakeholderism' seems to have replaced 'Internet freedom' as the mobilising Internet meme of choice ('Internet freedom' having been somewhat discredited by post-Snowden associations with the freedom of the US government to 'surveille', 'sabotage' and 'subvert' via the Internet).

In the midst of these developments there has been a subtle shift in presenting MSism as a framework for Internet governance consultation processes, where it is now put forward as the necessary model for Internet governance decision-making. Moreover, it is understood that this decision-making would be taking place not only within the fairly narrow areas of the technical management of Internet functions but also in the broader areas of Internet impact and the associated Internet-related public policy where the Internet's significance is both global and expanding rapidly.

Most importantly, the MS model is being presented as the model which would replace the 'outmoded' processes of democratic decision-making in these spheres - in the terminology of some proponents, providing an 'enhanced post-democratic' model for global (Internet) policy-making.

So what exactly is the 'multistakeholder model'? Well, that isn't quite clear and no one (least of all the US State Department which invoked the model 12 times in its one-page presentation to the NETmundial meeting in Brazil) has yet provided anything more than headline references to the MS model or examples of what it might look like (but probably wouldn't, given the likelihood of the need to contextualise individual instances and practices).

But whatever it is, a key element is that policy (and other) decisions will be made by and including all relevant 'stakeholders'. This will of course include, for example, the major Internet corporations, which get to promote their 'stakes' and make Internet policy through some sort of consensus process where all the participants have an 'equal' say and where rules governing operational procedures, conflict of interest, modes and structures of internal governance, rules of participation, etc. all seem to be made up as they go along.

Clearly the major Internet corporations, the US government and their allies in the technical and civil society communities are quite enthusiastic; jointly working out things like Internet-linked frameworks, principles and rules (or not) for privacy and security, taxation, copyright, etc. is pretty heady stuff. What isn't so clear is whether the outcome in any sense will be supportive of the broad public interest or an Internet for the Common Good, or anything beyond a set of rules and practices to promote the interests of those who are already getting the most returns from their current 'stake' in the Internet.

What I think is clear, though, is that the MS model now being touted is in fact the transformation of the neoliberal economic model, which has resulted in such devastation and human tragedy throughout the world, into a new form of 'post-democratic' governance. This connection between the neoliberal economic model and multistakeholder governance is presented most clearly in 'Toward a Single Global Digital Economy', a document published by the Aspen Institute with numerous Internet luminary co-authors and collaborators.

Thus, for example, the report outlines the following, which could be taken directly from the neoliberal playbook, as the essential ingredients for effective governance of the Internet:

'If countries wall themselves off from the global medium, or unduly restrict users' access to content, or if jurisdictional niceties block the transfer of information across borders, the public suffers in the following ways:

*      Undue barriers to trade and increased protectionism lead to the loss of the benefits of competition: lower prices, choice of services and increased innovation.

*      Deviations from a rule-of-law approach lead to a lack of trust as it relates to privacy, security and intellectual property protection.

*      Lack of harmonisation can lead to differences in deployment of broadband infrastructure, impede spectrum management and hamper interoperability.

*      Jurisdictional and regulatory differences can lead to differences in the adoption of human rights, particularly with respect to the freedoms of communication.'

The report argues for, outlines and celebrates the dominance of the Internet economy by the US, US corporations and selected OECD allies, and provides a plan of action for the implementation of the MS model as the supportive governance structure.

So, for example, while there are clear and well-regarded opportunities for participation by private sector stakeholders, technical stakeholders and civil society stakeholders in the Internet policy forums (marketplace), there is no one in the process (no 'stakeholder') with the task of representing the 'public interest'. No one has the responsibility for ensuring that the decision-making processes are fair and not contaminated and that the range of participants is sufficiently inclusive to ensure a legitimate and socially equitable outcome. Nor is there, in the multistakeholder model as in the neoliberal economic model, any external regulatory framework to protect the general or public interest in the midst of the interactions and outcomes resulting from the interactions between individual sectional interests.

In a normal democratic process (or a non-liberalised marketplace) the underlying framework and expectations of participation would be that the actors would be pursuing the 'public interest' (with, of course, different interpretations of what that might mean) and that there would be some basic social contract to provide a 'social safety net' for all the individuals and groups, particularly those least able to defend their own interests. However, in the MS model there is no promotion of the public interest. Rather, the public interest is seen as somehow a (magical) by-product/outcome of the confluence (or consensus) processes of each individual stakeholder pursuing their particular individual interest (stake). Government may or may not be an (equal) stakeholder in this model but in any case the overall intention is, if possible, to remove government altogether (even as the protector of rights and ensurer of equitable processes and outcomes).

This, of course, has to be seen as an overall 'privatisation' of governance where, for example, major Internet corporations have an equal standing alongside other stakeholders in determining Internet governance matters in areas such as regulation (where such is allowed to occur). In this model there is no space for the Internet as a common good or as a resource equally available for all as a tool for general economic and social betterment (including by the marginalised, the poor, those from less developed countries and even those who are not currently Internet 'users'). 'Stakeholders' get to make and even enforce the rules; as for anyone who isn't or can't be a 'stakeholder' - well, tough luck.

Similarly there is a refusal to accept even the possibility of a regulatory framework for the Internet (the argument most forcefully articulated in the course of the Internet freedom campaign); or that the Internet might be of sufficient importance as a fundamental platform for human action in this period, that it can no longer be seen as a domain of solely privatised action and control.

The damaging effects of neoliberalism are now highly visible and very well known. These have become evident through neoliberalism's promotion of the privatisation of public services such as education and health care in less developed (and developed) countries, with the consequent significant increases in non-schooling and deterioration in health among the poor, the marginalised and the rural; the undermining of the social contract and social safety nets in developed countries, with the associated increases in child poverty, homelessness and hunger; the 'Washington Consensus' and externally imposed austerity regimes, which many countries around the world are only now recovering from [and which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself has recognised as a serious and highly destructive mistake]; the actions of the IMF and World Bank in insisting on privatisation and deregulation, thus decimating numerous local enterprises in favour of multinationals; and overall, through providing the ideological drivers (and models) for a social and economic assault on the poor and vulnerable globally.

Neoliberalism's counterpart in global (Internet) governance and beyond, multistakeholderism, is now sought to be made the basic governance model for the Internet. It is promoted, quite unsurprisingly, by the corporate sector and the US government, but, equally and astonishingly, by wide elements of civil society and the technical community as well.

The real significance and ultimate target for this neoliberalisation of governance lies, of course, not in narrowly technical Internet governance matters but rather in issues such as taxation of Internet-enabled commerce and ultimately the need for revenue sharing with respect to Internet-related economic activity, in a world where income inequality is growing at an unprecedented rate on an Internet and global digitisation platform.

An uneven playing field

The current context, where global Internet giants such as Google and Amazon are completely free to transfer/allocate revenues and costs anywhere they choose within their multinational empires, so as to minimise tax exposure, is rapidly reaching a critical point where some sort of intervention is likely. On the longer-term horizon, both global and national income polarisation - much of it having some linkage to digital technology and the Internet - will at some point necessitate intervention and rebalancing if social unrest is to be avoided.

In a multistakeholder governance regime, however, the Internet giants will presumably be equal partners/stakeholders in the determination of matters of Internet regulation, taxation and the possible (re)allocation of overall benefits, i.e., those matters which are of direct financial concern to themselves and their shareholders. And these determinations will be taking place in policy contexts where there are no obvious champions/stakeholders representing the broad global public interest. That such an arrangement is directly supportive of US and other developed-country interests and the interests of dominant Internet corporations, i.e., those most actively lobbying for the multi-stakeholder model, is clearly no accident.

Equally of course, the less developed countries will be at a distinct disadvantage. Their governments lack the knowledge and often the resources to act as effective stakeholders in MS processes. Their national Internet corporations are either sub-units of global corporations or too weak to be effective in such environments; and many of their civil society organisations have been captured by means of the cheap baubles of international travel, the flattery of 'participation' in discussions with Internet luminaries, along with the crumbs of localised organisational benefits.The citizens of these countries (as with the disadvantaged populations in developed countries) will be completely at the mercy of elites in the developed countries and in those small segments of their own countries who have already achieved success in the global Internet sphere and stand to benefit enormously in prestige and otherwise through the dominance of multi-stakeholder governance processes.

Michael Gurstein, a Canadian, is Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training.A version of this article originally appeared as a blogpost on

*Third World Resurgence No. 287/288, July/August 2014, pp 22-24